By Dom Cioffi
Many, many years ago, I was ushered into the Christian faith as an altar boy at my local church. It was a rite of passage along with catechism classes and Sunday services.
I started out carrying ritualistic items like candles and chalices and eventually graduated to performing more important tasks for the liturgy. I never minded these activities because they kept me moving; quietly sitting in a pew pretending to pay attention was much more painful.
In hindsight, those experiences were good for me, but I did do a lot of questioning. While standing behind the alter next to the priest, I would peer into the congregation and watch the people, silently picking out the believers and non-believers. I found it intriguing how easy it was to target those who were buying into the process and those who were tagging along out of duty, obligation, or guilt.
Personally, I would listen to the stories conveyed in the Bible and question how realistic they could have been. (Really? Noah actually collected two of every animal on earth? Really)? Once my intellect matured, I began to realize that the passages were likely metaphorical in nature. Thankfully, I belonged to a church where literal interpretations were not the norm.
But while I always found myself questioning religious doctrine, I also, admittedly, found it intriguing. In fact, I found it so intriguing that I switched my major from business to philosophy mid-way through my college tenure. My father was not pleased with this decision and famously uttered, “A philosophy degree will always come in handy as a conversation piece in the unemployment line.”
He wasn’t wrong. Careerwise, it may not have been the best move, but the effects on my burgeoning intellect were incalculable.
I ended up studying all the major religions of the world like Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, while also digging into philosophical doctrines from thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Emmanuel Kant, René Descartes, and Bertrand Russell. And while I found the religious studies intriguing, it was the more philosophical arguments that grabbed my attention.
During this time, I would often stay up late watching television. And in the 1980s, late-night television was not what it is today. Back then, the later it got, the more infomercials and religious programming commandeered the airways.
I had little patience for infomercials, but the religious shows always fascinated me. It wasn’t a case of appeal, but rather a charming disdain for the televangelists who preached fire and brimstone at weirdly transfixed audiences. To me, the whole thing seemed so purposefully pathetic as the preachers would cry and beg for money so they could do more of “God’s work.”
And no one was more pathetic than Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. I’d watch the married preachers for short periods and marvel at how easily they seemed to manipulate their audiences. Sure, they’d say some lovely Christian things here and there, but it was always followed by a solicitation for cash.
For sure, there were other televangelists who were more diabolical, but Jim and Tammy Faye really created the archetype for the modern preacher.
Of course, my spidey-sense was on the mark as Jim and Tammy Faye and their PTL empire eventually crumbled under the weight of misappropriation of funds and other scandals.
Years later, while I was visiting family in South Carolina, I went golfing at a local country club. We were coming around a bend in the fairway when my brother-in-law motioned to a large building in the distance. “You see that?” he said while pointing. “That’s the former world headquarters of the PTL Club.”
When we got closer, I inched my cart near the edge of the fairway and peeked through the fencing and sure enough, there was the uniquely shaped building that I had seen countless times when watching PTL broadcasts. While once adorned with beautiful gardens and shrubbery, it was now completely overgrown with weeds and visibly unkept, representing the tragic demise of a once-powerful empire.
This week’s film, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” tells the history of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and how they climbed from early destitution to religious world domination and then lost it all.
Jessica Chastain recently won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Tammy Faye Bakker, and deservedly so. Her performance was not only uncanny but riveting both in texture and presence.
If you remember the glory days of the PTL Club or are at all intrigued by personal demolition stories, definitely give this film a try. It’s one of those “I can’t believe this happened” cautionary tales.
A faithful “A-” for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” available for rental on multiple streaming platforms.
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]